Petty in the Studio

Heartbreakers four songs into "Echo" follow-up

August 31, 2001 12:00 AM ET

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have begun work on their next album. Tracking at Los Angeles' Cello Studios, the band is again working with Rick Rubin, who produced 1999's Echo, 1996's She's the One and Petty's last solo album, 1994's Wildflowers." Many tracks on Echo, which was inspired by the band's twentieth anniversary return to the road, were a return to the Heartbreakers' Seventies raucous rock sound. However, guitarist Mike Campbell says the band has no intention of revisiting its past for nostalgia's sake alone.

"I don't care if it rocks or if it's slow or melancholy as long as it's a quality song," he says. "We've got a handful of really good songs and it's much more focused I think than [Echo] started out.

"We make an effort to not play the same riffs or use the same sounds from song to song," Campbell adds. "I don't know how far out there we'll get, but the effort is to go in and do something we've never done before. And if we can't do that, let's do something we did before that's really good." With only four songs finished thus far, Campbell says he doubts the album will see a release this year.

When asked if bassist Howie Epstein, who was busted in June for possession of heroin and a stolen car, is in on the sessions, Campbell is guarded. "Howie is getting healthy at the moment," he says. "That's about all I'm gonna say."

Those who enjoyed his lead vocals debut on Echo's "I Don't Wanna Fight" will be happy to hear Campbell has a side-project. The guitarist has recruited original Heartbreakers bassist Ron Blair, present Heartbreakers drummer Steve Ferrone and guitarist Jason Sinay of L.A.-based Five Easy Pieces to form the Dirty Knobs.

"It's rougher-edged [than Petty's material]," Campbell says of his Knobs. "It's slightly over-driven, less polished, lots of Sixties influence -- the Kinks, Zeppelin, the Animals. It's something I probably should have done a long time ago, but I didn't 'cause I was wrapped up in the Heartbreakers."

While Campbell says the Dirty Knobs have already committed some material to tape and have more songs at the ready, for the time being they're not shopping for a deal and remain content working things out at occasional clubs gigs in Los Angeles.

"I think it's a little weird for Tom to hear me sing after all these years," Campbell confesses. "He seems to be OK with it, but generally if I bring a song in that I sing on and he likes it, his take on it is, 'Yeah that's really good, but I think I can sing it better.' But he's been pretty cool about [the Dirty Knobs]. We haven't had any major conflicts.

"It's just a lot of fun to be able to go out and play songs, any songs you want," he continues. "With the Heartbreakers there are certain things we have to play, and it gets a bit hard sometimes to play the same songs for twenty years."

While the Heartbreakers' next full-length is still in its infancy, the band can next be heard on Labor of Love -- The Music of Nick Lowe, coming September 25th. The group contributes its version of Lowe's "Cracking Up" to the tribute, which also features Elvis Costello, Marshall Crenshaw and Sleepy LaBeef. The cover was first issued as a B-side to the Heartbreakers' 1985 single, "Make It Better (Forget About Me)."

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Song Stories

“American Girl”

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers | 1976

It turns out that a single with "American" in its title--recorded on the Fourth of July during the nation's Bicentennial, no less--can actually sell better in Britain. Coupled with the Heartbreakers' flair for Byrds jangle and Animals hooks, though, is Tom Petty's native-Florida drawl that keeps this classic grounded at home. Petty dispelled rumors that the song was about a suicidal student, explaining that the inspiration came from when he was 25 and used to salute the highway traffic outside his apartment window. "It sounded like the ocean to me," he recalled. "That was my ocean. My Malibu. Where I heard the waves crash, but it was just the cars going by."

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